Choices are always a fun part of games. They can give games replayability or help cater the game to different play styles so everyone can enjoy. But more often than not, choices in games are used to affect the story of the game more than anything else. For some games, it’s the biggest draw of them. Games like Mass Effect, Until Dawn, Fallout, or anything from Telltale Games. And while you can certainly argue that a lot of the time these games just give you the illusion of choice, meaning the choices you make barely affect anything in the end, it still goes a long way in making you feel like you’re playing the game your way. And at the very least your choices should give you a different ending when things are all said and done. A lot of times these are presented with dialog options during conversations so you know what you’re affecting. Most games make it clear when a choice you made has changed the story in someway.
But what about games that have choices but don’t tell you? Games that judge your actions when you’re playing rather than which dialog option you choose. These are the kinds of games I want to discuss, as one can certainly argue that having players make choices in these ways better shows their true feelings on things rather than giving them two options between ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
What got me thinking about this topic was the game Prey, or more specifically the reboot by Arkane Studios. It’s a game I finally got around to playing and I’m really happy I did as it was fantastic! I’m beginning to realize that Arkane Studios is kind of the king at making amazing games that review very well but never seem to make much money… But that’s a topic for another time! Right now we’re talking about how the game judges you based on your actions rather then any kind of dialog choice. Though, despite that, some of the choices are kind of obvious. Like going out of your way to help the other characters stuck on the space station with you rather than ignoring them or killing them is going to be seen as a good thing. But I was really surprised when it took more minor things into consideration as well when it came to what ending I got. Things like doing very optional side quests, making sure not to kill human characters even if they are hostile to me, and even the fact that I only used human abilities and no alien abilities! It was really cool to have the game actually take note of things like that and it made me feel like I really earned the ending that I got. Granted, it’s not hard to tell the game was going to have different ending so it wasn’t too much of a surprise that some of my actions were going to affect it. But I still feel like I earned the ending that I got! However, Prey is very much not the first game to try this. So let’s look at another example! One where it’s your final choice that really seals your fate.
Like a lot of horror games back in the day, many of the games in the Fatal Frame series have multiple endings. But unlike in Prey where a lot of your actions determine your ending, here what decides your ending generally comes down to a choice right before said ending. Not a dialog choice though, but your actions in those final moments! Again, while it isn’t as in depth as Prey, I have always liked that it’s normally a split second decision that decides it. You often don’t have time to think about what you’re going to do. Before I go on though, just a heads up, I will need to get into some spoilers to discuss further, so fair warning if you are planning to play Fatal Frame 2 completely spoiler free in the future!
Fatal Frame 2 is all about twin sisters Mio and Mayu who are dragged into a crazy ritual in a big village filled with ghosts. You play as Mio with your goal being to save Mayu and escape the village before the ritual can be completed. You spend most of your time looking for her while discovering more about what happened in the village and the nature of the ritual in general. And fighting ghosts, of course. Eventually, you do manage to get Mayu back. But just before escaping you lose her again and she’s dragged back deep into the village to complete the ritual. It’s in this moment you are faced with two options. You can either go back for your sister or you can take the escape you both were so close too. And as you can imagine, this leads to very different outcomes! The thing I always found interesting about it is that I never realized there was a choice here until I looked up the different endings later on. My gut reaction was always to go back and save Mayu, I never figured the game would actually let you leave in that final moment! But if your instincts tell you to run while you have the chance the game will certainly let you. This is a pretty minor example of making an invisible choice but I still felt like it should be brought up! Especially since it lets me tell people to play more Fatal Frame. It’s a great example of how ‘fight or flight’, the idea of either facing a challenge head on or running away, can vary from person to person. And by not telling you there is an option at this moment, the game leaves it up to that gut reaction of the player to decide what happens next. So even if it is a minor example of an invisible choice, it’s still a good one! But let’s talk about a series that takes invisible choices to the extreme… Let’s talk about Silent Hill.
While not every game in the series takes the idea of invisible choices super far, two in particular do; Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. And they both offer some prime examples of how great invisible choices can be! Both use their invisible choices to determine what ending the player will get but Shattered Memories actually has them affect other parts of the game as well. Things like character design, locations you visit, and even the design of enemies are determined by invisible choices. I remember being so confused when I watched other people play through the game as a lot of the characters looked completely different for them and they were going to different locations will completely different puzzles! It was a whole other experience based entirely around who was playing. However, it should be mentioned that there are plenty of standard choices that affect things too. These mainly come from the game’s therapy sections as the game is framed as the main character telling the events of the story to a therapist. I suppose this does take a bit away from the invisible choices you make but given that the questions you are asked in these sections do not make it clear how they’ll affect the game it certainly goes further than most games with this kind of mechanic. The game does also hit you with a “psychology warning” at the start telling you that your choices will affect your playthrough, which you could argue spoils things but I think it was more just to put players on edge from the get go!
Now, Silent Hill 2 on the other hand goes in deep with it’s invisible choices! While it doesn’t affect the game play as much as Shattered Memories choices do, the amount of invisible choices and what the game takes note of is crazy. I’m going to try my best to avoid spoilers for this while explaining how some of the mechanics work but just be warned that there might be some minor spoilers here and there. Your invisible choices in Silent Hill 2 mainly revolve around who you treat the main character, James, and what you have him do. For example James’ health plays a big part in this. Keeping him close to max health or close to no health is something the game very much keeps track of as it uses the information to basically determine how you care for James and his well being. It also keeps track of certain things in your inventory, or more specifically, how much you keep track of them! Items like the photo and letter from James’ wife, as well as Angela’s knife. Checking on these things every so often throughout the game is another thing that will be tracked and ultimately affect the ending. Your actions as James will also come into play too. Things like whether or not you finish off enemies and how you treat Maria, a character that will follow James around for certain sections of the game. The game will actually keep track of how close you stay to her, if you wait for her to catch up while you’re running, and if you shove passed her or not. It’s really impressive for a PS2 game. And when I was younger and playing Silent Hill 2 for the first time this really blew my mind! I knew the game had multiple endings but I was expecting there to be very obvious choices along the way that would determine which ending I got. It wasn’t till I was right before the very end of the game that I realized I hadn’t actually been making any choices, or so I thought! And while I was worried about what ending I would get, it also felt like I had earned the ending I got much more than if I made some clearly defined choices. I wasn’t picking a choice because it was the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choice, the choices were just my choices. Without having them be clearly defined it gave me more freedom to do what I was actually feeling in the moment. And that’s what truly makes the ending I got from those invisible choices feel earned!
You could argue that it’s kind of cheap to basically hide important choices from the player like that. How is a player suppose to make the choices they want to make if they don’t know how to make the choices in the first place after all. But that’s the beauty of invisible choices! Even if you don’t know how to make the choices, you still will be making them just by playing. The actions that you naturally perform are what decide your choices, and in that way it’s far more truthful. Let’s all be honest, when playing a game like Mass Effect you generally choice to be a good or bad guy from the start, or a Paragon or Renegade in Mass Effect‘s case. So when a dialog option comes up, you pick the option that is the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ option regardless of how you feel and probably without even reading both options. And while there isn’t anything wrong with that, a game that is trying to decide it’s narrative based on the choices that you, the player, would naturally make isn’t going to get that result with those kinds of choices. It really comes down to the kind of game. Mass Effect wants you to feel very much in charge of the choices you make, while Silent Hill 2 wants you to make honest choices. Mass Effect wants you to play the character you’d like to see in the game, while Silent Hill 2 wants you to play as you. And that’s what invisible choices are, they are honest. You make them on instinct rather than on what ending you might get or what character you’d like to play as. And that right there is why I love invisible choices in games! It really beings out who you are with your actions.
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Do you like when games have invisible choices? Do you enjoy playing games with multiple endings determined by your choices? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!
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